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The blood of the North American Martyrs

Of the missionaries sent by the Jesuits to the New World in the early seventeenth century, eight Frenchmen paid the ultimate price for their efforts.

Detail of a statue of St John de Brébeuf in Gatineau, Québec. (Image: Matt Osborne/Wikipedia)

When Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ was first released in 2004, the secular world focused almost exclusively on its depiction of violence. Movie reviewers who had been recommending horror films for decades went to great lengths to express their dismay about the brutality depicted in that film.

Since that fateful Good Friday when our Lord died, Christians have faced death in many brutal ways. The Roman emperor Nero, for example, arrested Christians, tied them to stakes, and made them into torches for his evening dinner parties. Queen Elizabeth I of England killed a remarkable number of priests and laymen through the grisly practice of hanging, drawing, and quartering.

There are not a lot of time periods that can match those two for stomach-churning cruelty. Except for, of course, the North American martyrs in the seventeenth century, whose Memorial is celebrated on October 19th.

Eight missionaries to the New World

By the early seventeenth century, Europeans had been colonizing the Americas for over a hundred years. Attempts to bring the Gospel to the native peoples of what is now Canada and the northern United States had not been particularly successful, but a handful of Franciscan friars had managed to establish a small outpost in Quebec, Canada. They asked the Jesuit order for help, and the French Jesuits obliged by sending missionaries to the tribes living in that area.

These missionaries lived among the native people, shared their poverty, learned their languages, braved their weather, and tried to find ways to teach them about God. Of those missionaries, eight Frenchmen paid the ultimate price for their efforts.

The Jesuit priest Saint John de Brebeuf was a large man, but his Jesuit superiors hesitated to send him to Canada. He had such poor health that they worried the harsh life would kill him. Instead, his health improved during the twenty-four years he lived among the Hurons, and he wrote a catechism and a French-Huron dictionary, which was later used by other missionaries.

Saint Gabriel Lalemant was also a Jesuit priest and was Brebeuf’s assistant at their mission among the Hurons. He had been in the New World for less than three years when their village was attacked by the Iroquois. The Iroquois tortured de Brebeuf and Lalemant in unspeakable ways (look it up here if you have the stomach for it) before killing both of them.

Saint Antony Daniel was a Jesuit priest who had served as a missionary to the Hurons for fourteen years when the Iroquois attacked his village. He had just celebrated Mass when he was shot and killed with arrows.

Saint Charles Garnier was a Jesuit priest and lived among the Hurons for thirteen years until he was killed during an Iroquois attack.

Jesuit priest Saint Noel Chabanel found it very difficult to adapt to the way of life of the Hurons, but he had been living among them for six years when his village was attacked by the Iroquois. He survived the attack and was trying to lead survivors to safety when he was killed by a Huron who had apostasized from the Christian faith.

Saint Rene Goupil suffered from deafness, so he was rejected when he tried to enter the Jesuit order in France. Undaunted, Goupil studied medicine and offered to serve the Jesuit missionaries as a layman without pay. He traveled to Canada and assisted Saint Isaac Jogues in his mission for two years until he and Jogues were captured by the Iroquois. Goupil angered his captors when he made the Sign of the Cross on a child’s forehead; they thought it was a curse. They tortured Goupil for two months before they killed him.

Saint Isaac Jogues was a Jesuit priest and had lived as a missionary among the Hurons for six years when he was captured by the Iroquois, along with his assistant Goupil (above). They killed Goupil after a few months, but they tortured Jogues for more than a year (once again, see the gruesome details here). Jogues continued to try to teach them about God even in captivity. When he was freed through the help of Dutch settlers, he returned to France. Because his hands had been mutilated by torture, he had to get permission from the pope to be allowed to celebrate Mass, a permission that the pope quickly granted. Amazingly, Jogues then returned to the New World. Within a few years, he and his assistant Saint John Lalande, another lay assistant to the Jesuits and the eighth martyr, were captured by the Iroquois, tortured, and killed.

It is often pointed out, rightly, that European diseases killed many natives of North America. But it is also true that the violence between North American tribes was constant, unending, and brutal. They were a people in need of a Savior, which is exactly what the Jesuit martyrs were trying to offer them.

How faith conquers violence

Even this sanitized description of the suffering of these brave men is difficult to read. But just as the graphic depiction of our Savior’s Crucifixion in a film was not done gratuitously, neither is it gratuitous to describe these martyrs’ violent deaths.

That is because the deaths of these eight men, like the death of our Lord, bore fruit. Shortly after the deaths of these Jesuit martyrs during the years 1642 to 1649, there was a flowering of conversions among the native peoples of North America. The heroic patience, genuine charity, and astonishing peace even during unspeakable torture that these men exhibited did exactly what true Christian witness always does: it leads those who are not Christian to start asking questions about Jesus Christ.


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About Dawn Beutner 26 Articles
Dawn Beutner is the author of Saints: Becoming an Image of Christ Every Day of the Year from Ignatius Press and blogs at dawnbeutner.com.

4 Comments

  1. Sections of the Finger Lakes Trail W NYS were old Iroquois pathways through the hilly forest next to my home. Dawn Beutner mentions the large, perhaps ungainly Jesuit Jean de Brébeuf, a portion of whose diary is in the breviary priests read and pray daily. I treasure rereading it each year, as a prayer for inspiration and courage. And to ignite the flame of love. “For two days now I have experienced a great desire to be a martyr and to endure all the torments martyrs suffered. Jesus, my Lord and my Savior, what can I give you in return for all the favors you have first conferred on me? I will take from your hand the cup of your sufferings and call on your name. I vow before the eternal Father and the Holy Spirit, before your most holy Mother that as far as I have the strength I will never fail to accept the grace of martyrdom. My beloved Jesus, because of the surging joy which moves me, here and now I offer my blood and body and life. May I die only for you, if you grant me this grace, since you willingly died for me. My God, it grieves me greatly that you are not known, that in this savage wilderness all have not been converted to you, that sin has not been driven from it. My God, even if all the brutal tortures which prisoners in this region must endure fall on me, I offer myself most willingly to them and I alone shall suffer them all” (Fr Jean de Brébeuf SJ). Today the Mohawk, fiercest of the five tribes of the Iroquois Confederation are mostly Catholic. I met the first Mohawk priest years past on a visit to the St Regis Mohawk Reservation where there’s a Kateri Tekakwitha shrine.

  2. Thank you for this excellent article, as well as the Martyrs’ Prayer. What the North American Martyrs suffered is unspeakable and nearly unbelievable. And what is most remarkable is the manifestation of such love and self-sacrifice for our Lord. In our easy, comfortable age, it would be considered not only foolish, but psychologically unhealthy. But they are our mighty models. God grant us a bit of their courage and faith!

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